Made In Middlesex

28th February 2014

Clare Finney goes in search of award-winning food produced on our doorstep

Middlesex. We love it, of course, but it’s not exactly a culinary hotspot. It hasn’t the heritage of Lincolnshire, say, or the aspirational feel of Cornwall. When the 2012-13 Great Taste Guide came out, Devon and Dorset totaled four pages; Middlesex had a third of a page. Yet what it does have is worth sampling – and then shouting about.

Wholemeal bread flour, typically British, and tongue-tingling tandoori sauce, the ultimate hybrid, share the limelight with Egusi stew, a traditional dish from West Africa made by a Zimbabwean woman in Edgware. Together, they encapsulate the multicultural nature of Middlesex, a melting pot of cultures and nationalities – yet their decision to locate production here, in the sprawl of suburbia, can seem unfathomable to those who associate food with farms, dairies, rolling countryside. Why are they here? And what influence has this humble London county had on their products, if any? Struck by the eclecticism of these award-winning local businesses, I decided to find out.

My first stop was well-known territory: Wrights Flour, a milling company based in Enfield, whose mill is registered in the Doomsday Book and whose flour has frequented my grandmother’s shelf ever since. The current owners, the Wright family, have been there from 1867. The present owner, David Wright, is friendly and hardworking; his evident pride in his business has only increased with the emergence of large-scale competitors – “for a business to flourish for 150 years takes a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he points out – and with the successive technological innovations that they’ve managed to implement without being forced to compromise the mill’s valuable heritage. The firm’s quaint Georgian mill house and offices, together with a 16th century great barn plus other listed structures, make it one of the most complete groupings of historical industrial buildings still being worked in Greater London.

Location is important here – the wheat is transported from the family farm of E & K Benton’s Ltd in Essex, “less than eight miles from the mill,” says David – but it is the development of infrastructure, product lines and machinery that has enabled this small family businesses to survive and to prosper.

“Wright’s has always had a commitment to providing quality products cost effectively so has always been keen to stay right at the forefront of technological advancement. As early as 1906, a steam wagon replaced the traditional horse and cart,” Deb, the Wright’s in-house baker, explains. Now it’s bulk road tankers, and silos for storage, and another factory to be built “just a mile from the mill, and most importantly in Enfield, where flour has been manufactured since 1087,” says David happily. There’ll be no chocolate box façade of course, but Wrights’ new facilities will further their innovative range of ‘ready to bake’ lines.

These products are what saved the company, moving them from being a small producer at the mercy of large milling corporations to competing with the best of them for consumers whose nine to five days no longer accommodate the joys of home baking. How do you lure a working mother of two towards the loaf tin? For the Wrights, the answer was simply make the whole process easier – and by putting everything needed to make Ciabatta, Parmesan & Sundried Tomato or Garlic & Rosemary Focaccia bread in one pack, bar the water, they rose to the occasion with prescience, and that level of flexibility unique to small businesses with local roots.

Their success is evident: in the Great Taste Gold Award last year, and in the fact that I, a girl whose culinary abilities begin and end with the toaster, can bake an edible loaf with their award-winning One Loaf Wholemeal Flour in 500g bag. The judges commented that it “made a perfect loaf with good crumb and a good crust, excellent wholemeal bread aroma, texture and taste”, and even my own non-existent skills managed to reap something almost of that ilk.

They may be the oldest by almost two centuries, but the ways in which Wrights Flour have turned their hand to the task of catering for the time-poor consumer is on a par with both Mindi’s, the Brent-based company behind the tandoori pots and other quality Indian ready meals, and Edgware-based duo Pepper & Stew (of Egusi stew fame) in the understanding of market needs.

That these companies are found in Middlesex is more significant than it might appear initially. Though wide in scope and geography, the winners of the Great Taste Awards tend generally to be either finished products – with cheese, smoked fish and meats, condiments and chocolate making frequent appearances in the top 50 list – or beverages. Ready meals and nearly ready meals such as Wrights artisan bread mixes, Mindi’s sauces and snack pots, and Pepper & Stew’s are fairly few and far between. The reason for this is in part practical – the necessities for producing aged Highland beef, dry cider or Stilton being hard to come by in suburban housing estates – yet could also be construed as a feature of our proximity to London: its pace, society and its just-a-minute attitude toward home cooking. Racquel of Pepper & Stew first started cooking West African dishes 12 years ago, and could not believe how long a process it was. Her company was started “with one mission in mind: to make African meals quick and simple.” Chefs of Italian, Thai and Mexican cuisines had made their recipes accessible through high-quality prepared sauces; doing the same for Egusi Stew, Jollof and other dishes from Africa seemed a logical next step.

“The world is so fast paced at this moment in time,” agrees Arvey of Mindi’s, “but people are more culturally aware than they used to be. They know what good food tastes like, and they want quality as well as convenience and speed.” Arvey’s genius was to tap into the one area of cuisine that Brits know and love, but which is poorly catered for by the ready meal market: Indian food. Dhals, tandooris and masalas have a place in the heart of every Briton worth his or her spice but if you want something authentic, it’s a (good) restaurant or an Indian friend. Former city broker Arvey knew his mum’s food was the real deal: every Friday, when he’d bring her dishes into the office, his desk turned into a watering hole. “People came in droves – the smell alone brought the whole trading floor over,” he enthuses. “That was my lightbulb moment. I’d wanted to start a business for ages, I love food, and this was my story. These recipes had been handed down through generations, and apart from Innocent there weren’t really any branded ready meals with quality ingredients.” All Arvey had to do was figure out a way to scale up his mum’s recipes, and bring them to the market.

Easier said than done. Like most good cooks, when it came to staple dishes, Arvey’s mum didn’t use recipes or even measure out ingredients: she simply threw things in. “I’d ask her how much of a particular spice she was using, and she’d say ‘oh, just a pinch…’ – but, of course, we had to get it to scale, we had to be accurate,” Arvey grins. “I’d get a measurement, then dad would come and say, ‘No no, you put this much in.’ Then Mum would argue with him. It was like a comedy show. Some of my funniest moments were sitting in the kitchen with mum and dad tasting and arguing.”

Nevertheless, many months, tastings and retweakings later (“Mum tasted everything, and if it didn’t suit her, it didn’t go”), the products hit the shelves. The brand name was obvious: “Mindi. Mum’s name.”

For Arvey, as for Raquel, branding was everything. Both faced the challenge of taking a cuisine that was slightly stereotyped and transforming its image to make it mainstream. “Of course, we want to stay true to that heritage of recipes being handed down, family meals, generosity, friends being fed whenever they come round, regardless of whether they’ve eaten – but we also wanted to flip Indian food on its head.” Mindi’s unspoken tagline is ‘Indian with attitude’, and the product labeling is accordingly modern and refreshingly free from elephants and lotus flowers.

Racquel’s Pepper & Stew branding is plain and similarly sophisticated. “I was pleasantly surprised to find an African food product with none of the slap-dash labeling, awful contrasting colours and a grinning, fat ‘mammy’ type face staring back at me,” wrote one African food writer, when her sauces were launched. “Finally, I thought to myself, someone out there has taken the time to nurture and transform the way African food products are branded.”

Racquel’s challenge differed, though, from Arvey’s in that it was also about education. As the assistant at African food shop Savannah explained to me, most people don’t appreciate that calling Egusi Stew ‘African’ is as meaningless as referring to Carbonara as ‘European’. “Africa is a huge continent. Each country has different climates, products – and a different approach to cooking,” he told me. In the north dishes are tagine-based; in the south there are more stews. Spices and flavourings vary hugely. That someone has decided to celebrate this diversity and make it mainstream is, he said, “fantastic. It’s been a huge hit with customers, from all over – not just from Africa.” From a shop that serves the largest African community in Britain, this is no small praise.

The success of such local producers as Raquel, Arvey and the Wright family is heartwarming; their presence here in Middlesex testimony to both the county’s present and its past. Wrights would be nothing without wheat fields nearby and the local bakers who support their flour, Mindis and Pepper & Stew impossible without their proximity to London, and the diverse community that the city, and Middlesex itself, boasts. “I’m a Middlesex boy born and bred,” shrugs Arvey. “I like to think if Mindi’s is successful, it will encourage other people like me in the area to go for it.”

After all, as the Wright family points out in their ‘Story of a Family Business’, the ability of any company to survive in these times ‘must surely act not only as encouragement to other firms wising to set up in the region, but as a continuing remainder of how to adapt and prosper’. Having tried and tasted all of their award-winning products, I ­whole-heartedly – and full-stomachedly – agree.

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